The Traveling Virgin Mary
From the May, 2014 issue
This spring, a white marble three-and-a-half foot statue of the Virgin Mary, along with her engraved granite pedestal, will continue a journey begun early in the twentieth century. In the meantime, Arnet's Monuments, the family-owned business responsible for the statue's rescue more than twenty years ago, is overseeing the renovation of her pedestal for its own new engagement.
The statue of the mother of Jesus--with marble tears falling from her downcast eyes, an "Immaculate Heart," and a rosary--stood for decades at the entrance to Mercywood Sanitarium just west of Ann Arbor. "We don't really know where she originally came from," says Arnet's president Caryl Arnet, "but most likely Italy, as Italians were master craftsmen in monuments around the turn of the century."
Founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1924 to help those suffering from mental illness, Mercywood quickly grew from nine to forty beds with the 1926 opening of a hospital building on the eighty-acre site on Jackson Road. It operated there for sixty years and grew to more than 100 beds before moving to a new building on the Saint Joseph Mercy Health System campus east of Ann Arbor in 1986; Mercywood closed in 1994 after insurers drastically reduced payments for in-patient mental health care.
Caryl Arnet says the statue came to the family business in 1986. Her father, Larry Arnet, who had run the business since 1953, got a call from the contractor who was leveling the old hospital, which was just down Jackson from Arnet's shop. He removed the arched black wrought iron entrance sign, the statue, and its pedestal.
"It was a different time," says Martha Arnet Moomey, Caryl's sister and Arnet's vice president at its Ypsilanti location. "Dad had his hands all over Ann Arbor and Ypsi, so contractors called him when they were dismantling property, because they knew he could reuse some of the materials. I know he went to Ypsilanti State Hospital when they were tearing it down. I can't imagine anyone
letting someone do that now."
Caryl Arnet says the company still gets offers of old stone during demolitions. Much of it is low quality and would cost "more for us to have it taken away" than it's worth, she says, but they do salvage some architectural granite and marble as well as natural stone from farm fields that they reuse in garden landscapes, for pet grave markers, for address signage, and occasionally as cemetery headstones.
SJMHS spokesperson Laura Blodgett says that while the statue didn't make the journey to the St. Joe's campus, she believes that the Mercywood cornerstone was incorporated into the front of the Towsley Health Building, and that some of its stained glass windows were built into the Huron Woods chapel there.
The wrought iron sign was put to new uses, Arnet says, while Mary's pedestal remained at the company's shop. Caryl's mother, Marge, asked to have the statue itself placed in the garden at the family's home in Dexter. After Marge's passing in 2008 and Larry's in 2011, their son, Steve, took ownership of the house, and the statue returned to Arnet's Ann Arbor shop.
A conversation between Caryl Arnet and Father David Glaser of Chelsea's St. Barnabas Episcopal Church last June put the wheels in motion for the Virgin's next residency. Glaser had come to Arnet's to purchase special paint for a church sign, and, while he was there, mentioned that he needed a statue for the church's planned memorial garden. Caryl immediately replied, "I've got just the one I think you need."
Caryl's decision to donate the statue was inspired by a wish to honor her parents and their relationship with Father Jerry Beaumont, retired pastor of St. Barnabas, and with Faith in Action, the community-funded, faith-based assistance and resource center for Chelsea and Dexter residents. "My parents had gone to St. James in Dexter," recalls Caryl, "but had a close relationship to Father Jerry. When he told them about his idea for Faith in Action, they were among its first funders."
Caryl says the statue is "in really good shape" and just needs a good cleaning before going to its new home. The Arnets will provide a new engraved gray granite base for the statue, honoring their parents and their work with Faith in Action. "It's a really wonderful gesture," Father Glaser says of the donation. He expects the statue will be placed in the garden this June.
Caryl notes that this is not the family's first donation to a church. Her grandfather, Fred Arnet, a 1932 U-M graduate in architecture, donated the baptismal font at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor.
Sister Yvonne Gellise, a Sister of Mercy and former SJMHS CEO who's now a senior advisor to the health system, says: "We did not know the journey that the Virgin Mary statue has taken since Mercywood moved in 1986, but we are thrilled that it had a good home in the garden of the Arnets and pleased that it will be moved to St. Barnabas. We hope it brings hope and healing to many through the years."
The statue's pedestal will also find a new purpose this year, thanks to Jim Roth, a member of the Saline City Council and Saline Area Historical Society. Roth had contacted Arnet's about a base for a bronze bust of the city's founder, Orange Risdon, commissioned by the historical society from sculptor Elizabeth Rogers and presented to the city in 2001. "We're using the stone [from Mary's pedestal] and supplying most everything at cost," says longtime Arnet's employee Claire Sawicki. "We'll be mounting the existing bust on top of the stone and adding an engraved black granite panel over the current one."
The Saline Arts and Culture Committee is developing the new panel's text and hopes to see the platform and bust installed outside City Hall this spring. "The bust was originally designed to be outdoors, and we're very pleased to be able to move it outside," says Linda TerHaar, a committee and city council member. "It's inspiring to know that, thanks to Arnet's, we're able to reuse a piece that has its own interesting local history."
[Originally published in May, 2014.]
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